Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A haunting, edgy and strongly sung triumph: Scartazzini's world premiere of Edward II at Deutche Oper Berlin

Brought to the stage by Deutsche Oper Berlin and directed by Christof Loy, Swiss composer Andrea Lorenzo Scartazzini's much anticipated world premiere work, Edward II, arrived in a dramatically layered, haunting, edgy and strongly sung triumph on Sunday night.

Michael Nagy as Edward II
King of England from 1307-27, Edward II's reign was problematic for more than his failures in an ongoing war with Scotland. Controversy brewed over his patronage of a small circle of favourites and, in this story's context, one of them in particular had to be disposed of.

Based on Christopher Marlowe's Edward II: The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England, with the Tragical Fall of Proud Mortimer (c.1592) as well as other sources, librettist Thomas Jonigk vividly and brutally highlights Edward II's personal tragedy, focusing on the crisis Edward faces in staunchly holding onto a love he can neither live without nor able to hold onto power with - the sinful love for another man in the context of religious contradictions, power struggles and homophobic attitudes.

Scartazzini and Jonigk eschew dry historical storytelling by crafting its structure with something of altered realities that blend Edward's premonition-like nightmares with events that mix the period and modern. The language effuses sarcasm, is direct and uncensored ("arsefucker" and "cocksucker" aren't used gratuitously). It's also strikingly realised by the design team that gives the work well-packaged tightness.

The main action takes place almost always across the breadth of the fore-stage and with great impact. Annette Kurz's set design features a medieval-inspired imposing memorial-like stone tower (no doubt politely alluding to a phallus) that stands to the left, with its small circular interior a capsule for secondary layers of action (usually sodomitic) with access to the rear stage. To the right, much open area exists for the large chorus gatherings and, though a single set, it always serves Loy's unabashed and often confronting direction. Klaus Bruns's costumes gravitate towards the smart and spiffy contemporary with elements of the exaggerated and Stefan Bolliger's lighting design adds depths of intrigue.

Ladislav Elgr as Gaveston and Michael Nagy 
Opening as the first of ten scenes that both segue and overlap, Edward in a dreams, is taunted by his people and bears witness to the shocking and violent sexual torture of his lover Piers de Gaveston. A mock wedding for them ensues that becomes a powerful piece of theatre full of pain, humiliation and injustice rarely seen on stage.

When, near the opera's end, a crowd is directed to the "Next room", we are given the sense that we're watching the "malleable" masses (the same ones who earlier revolted against and persecuted their king) being shown a curious contemporary exhibit of a museum diorama brought to life and leaves a powerful taste that has one question morality and justice as much of the work does.

Scartazzini's thrashing, restless and episodic 90-minute score is dotted by a tribal-like beat and cacophonous percussion that describe the tumultuous events and which conductor Thomas Søndergard leads to give much dramatic effect. The work includes scenes for a large and snarling chorus of citizens and the Chor der Deutchen Oper Berlin obliged in big and excellent voice even though a couple of times they kept the soloists from ringing through.

Still, opening night came across well-rehearsed and showed off some very appealing voices and performances as part of a superbly integrated and committed cast that aid in giving the work much throbbing theatricality.

Hefty-voiced baritone Michael Nagy plunged deep into the title role as Edward II, a star vehicle exhibiting the troubled, lascivious and madly in love king with a sting to his performance as he enters a path of no return. Nagy easily captured the sturdiness and range of the vocal writing but it's in the lower reaches of the voice that an enormous treasure chest of wealth opened up.

Edward's lover is easily identified by the strapping athletic good looks of Ladislav Elgr who depicts Gaveston as a provocative man who spends most of his time in white boxers and singlet. Elgr's liquid bright tenor compliments Nagy's broad and ripe sound and he portrays the victimised Gaveston with remarkable feeling. Importantly, the two make a compelling pair in love.

As Isabella, Agneta Eichenholz eloquently conveys the queen's frustration of languishing in a loveless marriage and subsequent spiteful air as she plots with her lover Roger Mortimer to depose the king. Eichenholz just as easily floats the music as she does in carrying it resonantly large into the sizeable Deutche Oper Theatre and she does so with compelling expressivity.

Jarrett Ott as the Angel and Michael Nagy as Edward II
Andrew Harris is a menacing presence as Mortimer and his brawny-voiced and huge capacity bass got an impressive workout. Another firm performance comes from the more burnished baritone of Jarrett Ott as the Angel only Edward can see and who shares a devastatingly haunting scene with Edward in his final moments.

Burkhard Ulrich carries of the luscious fabric costumed contradictory and sinister Walter Langton, as Bishop of Coventry, with aplomb, his wiry and ringing tenor appropriate in the role. And providing light relief but charged with loads of wit, Markus Brück and Gideon Poppe pair wonderfully together in their exploits as soldiers, councillors and tour guides in a hoot as their sexual persuasions and fetishes are ignited and tested.

When Edward learns of Gaveston's actual murder, it is from his own son who delivers the gruesome account. With it comes an innocence that belies the atrocity via the purity and sweetness of its rendition by young Ben Kleiner as the questioning young Prince Edward. It's one of many moments that lift the art of opera and theatre in a work that will no doubt be looking to a solid and exciting future.

Deutche Oper Berlin
Until 9th March

Production photos: Monika Rittershaus 

Friday, February 17, 2017

Radiant bel canto display revives a rarer Rossini treat: Tancredi at Opera Philadelphia

Tancredi was written when the early 19th century Italian composer nicknamed "Signor Crescendo", best-known for his effervescent comic opera Il barbiere di Siviglia and a prolific writer of around 40 operas, was just 20 years of age. Premiering in 1813, three years before Il barbiere di Siviglia, and moderately popular in its day, Rossini's compositional showmanship shines. A now uncommonly performed opera seria, Opera Philadelphia (in a coproduction with Opéra de Lausanne and Teatro Municipal de Santiago) have handsomely presented it with both visual elegance and descriptive vocal beauty by a radiant fine bel canto cast.

Stephanie Blythe as Tancredi
Originally set in Byzantine Syracuse and based on Voltaire’s play Tancrède, if the basis of its prescribed story of love, honour, duty and conflict doesn't thrill, director Emilio Sagi and his design team at least give flesh to it with well-paced drama while blending power and privilege successfully in an inspired, almost placeless World War I European setting with the protagonists sharply in focus. 

Act I begins as a centred single point perspective composition comprising a gathering of distinguished military and diplomatic types seated around a long banquet table within an imposing but mildly restrained neoclassical palatial room.

In the unfolding story, two rival noblemen, Argirio and Orbazzano, come together to fight the foreign invader Solamiro in a truce that hands over Argirio's daughter Amenaide in marriage to Orbazzano. Amenaide is, however, secretly in love with the exiled soldier Tancredi. When charged with treason for a letter written to Tancredi, who her father and betrothed believe to be Solamiro, she is condemned to death. In order to save her, Tancredi gallantly returns to Syracuse. 

During it all, after the initial rigidity melts away and a more pronounced human touch fires the drama, Daniel Bianco's sets undergo various soft transformations that magnify and shrink the space effectively. Eduardo Bravo's muted lighting and Pepa Ojanguren's dignified and vibrant costumes provide continuously appealing tableaux.

Three big roles with some devastatingly tricky arias form the opera's core, padded out with a chorus of male officers and three smaller solo roles. 

Brenda Rae as Amenaide
As a gobsmacking gourmet meat and gravy-voiced Tancredi, Stephanie Blythe gives a thunderous performance and takes sound ownership in this title role debut. Rossini wrote a taxing title role to fill and Blythe's solid experience fills it magnificently with unflinching assertiveness and depths of vocal shading. 

It was as if soprano Brenda Rae, though making her company debut, already appeared close to the local audience's heart. For good reason. As Amenaide, Rae let loose a showcase of vocal treats in a captivating display of desire and distress, giving it all vocal grace, gravitas and expressive power.

Also making his company debut, Michele Angelini pours a measure of diplomatic stiffness and heaps of vocal character into his role as Argirio. Angelini oozes with warmth and lyricism and pushes out some beautifully even skips through his coloratura. Daniel Mobbs' staunchly sung but somewhat repugnant Orbazzano, Allegra De Vita's poised and lusciously sung Isaura, and Anastasiia Sidorova's Roggiero all compliment the big three splendidly as do a radiant chorus of soldiers, nobles and citizens.

Michele Angelini, Brenda Rae and Stephanie Blythe
Overall, and especially so in the gentler, more spacious passages, Opera Philadelphia Music Director and conductor Corrado Rovaris gave Rossini's filigreed score affecting, well-modulated life and always remained alert to his singers. The Opera Philadelphia Orchestra made the distance with faultless musicianship among who the en pointe trumpeters and string players should take a deserved bow.

And if you're going to see Opera Philadelphia's Tancredi, and do try, don't dream of leaving before the orchestra delivers Tancredi's last breaths. It's an unexpected and moving end to opera you might expect to end with thunder.

Opera Philadelphia
Academy of Music
Until 19th February

Production photos: Kelly & Massa Photography

Monday, February 6, 2017

'Tis Pity, a disappointing, operatically barren new work from Victorian Opera: Herald Sun Review


Published online Monday, 6th February and in print Tuesday, 7th February

If an opera company isn’t selling opera, who can it be left to? In Victorian Opera’s new collaboration between composer and librettist Richard Mills, Meow Meow and director Cameron Menzies, an identity crisis of sorts appears to be creeping in. It’s refreshing having a local company champion new work but in its efforts to build a new audience it could very well be dividing its existing one.

The Saturday night opening of ’Tis Pity — An Operatic Fantasia on Selling the Skin and the Teeth is described by Menzies as a “Vaudevillian romp through the ages”.

Kanen Breen and Meow Meow
It’s a mashed-up series of songs of mixed musical style spread across 10 vignettes that mostly dawdle and occasionally gallop along. Picture book-like, it tells us a little about whoring through the ages, of misogyny, hypocrisy, desire and the transactional sale of beauty from Ancient Greece to the silver screen via the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, a fleeting High Renaissance and the 18th Century ‘gigolo et gigolettes’ among others.

The problem is that even if the libretto’s part-witty, part-convoluted penchant for rhyme and wordiness was more comprehensible, the advertised 75-minute work would still feel lengthy. Opening night, in fact, only just crossed the hour — sluggishly.

It was “written at breakneck speed” according to Mills in the program notes. That seemed to show and by halfway through it felt lacking a raison d’être. When the subject of syphilis came by way of a snappy Latin-beat song, it was time to let the frivolity be the driving force and abandon the search for meaning.

Fortunately, dolled-up Meow Meow and flamboyant Kanen Breen work superbly as a duo, both strikingly versatile and well-rehearsed. They share the stage with three time-perfect gender-fluid dancers (Alexander Bryce, Thomas Johansson and Patrick Weir) who weave in and out.

The setting is two sizeable beds adorned with protruding posts of slender stockinged legs on either side of the stage and a roll-about stair. A red velvet-curtained backdrop features two frames on which key words of the libretto are projected.

But I couldn’t help but think the songs might better have been sung without staged distractions because the marvellous sounding, crisp-playing Orchestra Victoria conducted by Mills and Meow Meow and Breen’s vocal and physical flexibility were what mattered most. Even so, it seems to belong elsewhere — in a cabaret festival or club.

At the end of it all, ‘Tis Pity feels like an indulgent work that neither does justice to the art of opera nor the rich talent at Victorian Opera’s disposal. This time the company has sold itself thin.

Production photo:  Pia Johnson

Melbourne Recital Centre until February 8

Rating: two and a half stars

Monday, December 26, 2016

Revealed via Twitter @OperaChaser on 27th December 2016 commencing at 5pm.
Dromana, Victoria.

 Award for Outstanding Production - Melbourne, Die Walküre, Opera Australia

Every night of the year, opera takes to the stage and impresses its musical, vocal and emotive force on audiences anywhere from Adelaide to Zurich and Reykjavik to Cape Town, from mega-cities to rural outposts, stages big and small. Annual global audience number the tens of millions and people continue to be drawn to its artistic mystique on both sides of the curtain.

This year I was drawn to 95 diverse opera productions in 21 cities across 4 continents, a lofty number considering my home in Melbourne is far from the operatic centres of Europe and North America. I reviewed 59 of those and everything not reviewed was given extensive 'Twitterviews' via @OperaChaser.

I'm proud of the exceptional work and standards I see from companies large and small, together with the innovative ways I see from those that strive to connect with a wider audience. Opera is alive and will forever remain so.

The 2nd Annual OperaChaser Awards and Commendations are an opportunity to reflect on the year and are dedicated to all who have contributed in sharing their artistic pursuits by nourishing their audiences with immeasurable and lasting enjoyment.

Thank you to all involved in creating the ephemeral beauty of opera in performance. Again, there is no ceremony, no trophy and no prize, but I sincerely hope that these awards bring a little pleasure to the deserved artists who brought excellence to the art of opera and all who continue to dig deep into their artistic, dramatic and creative energies.

2016 OperaChaser Awards, Melbourne 
From 32 productions including Gertrude Opera for the Nagambie Lakes Opera Festival.

Outstanding Production
Die Walküre, Opera Australia

Outstanding Production - Independent
Tannhäuser, Melbourne Opera

Innovative Opera Company
Lyric Opera of Melbourne

Outstanding Director
Neil Armfield
Die Walküre, Opera Australia

Outstanding Director - Independent
Greg Eldridge
Trouble in Tahiti, Gertrude Opera for the Nagambie Lakes Opera Festival

Outstanding Male in a Lead Role
Warwick Fyfe
Alberich, Das Rheingold, Opera Australia

Outstanding Male in a Lead Role - Independent
Marius Vlad
Title role, Tannhäuser, Melbourne Opera

Outstanding Female in a Lead Role
Lise Lindstrom
Brünnhilde, Götterdämmerung, Opera Australia

Outstanding Female in a Lead Role - Independent
Lee Abrahmsen
Elizabeth, Tannhäuser, Melbourne Opera

Outstanding Male in a Supporting Role
Jud Arthur
Fafner, Siegfried, Opera Australia

Outstanding Male in a Supporting Role - Independent
Paul Biencourt,
Pedrillo, The Abduction from the Seraglio, Melbourne Opera

Outstanding Female in a Supporting Role
Jane Ede
Musetta, La bohème, Opera Australia

Outstanding Female in a Supporting Role - Independent
Kate Amos
Milly, Our Man in Havana, Lyric Opera of Melbourne

Outstanding Conductor 
Pietari Inkinen
Götterdämmerung, Opera Australia

Outstanding Conductor - Independent
Pat Miller
Our Man in Havana, Lyric Opera of Melbourne

Outstanding Ensemble
Laughter and Tears, Victorian Opera

Outstanding Ensemble - Independent
Tannhäuser, Melbourne Opera

Outstanding Set Design
Robert Cousins
Die Walküre, Opera Australia

Outstanding Set Design - Independent
Christina Logan-Bell
Tannhäuser, Melbourne Opera

Outstanding Costume Design
Harriet Oxley
Laughter and Tears, Victorian Opera

Outstanding Costume Design - Independent
Jenny Tate
Anna Bolena, Melbourne Opera

Outstanding Lighting Design
Damien Cooper
Götterdämmerung, Opera Australia

Outstanding Lighting Design - Independent
Luke Leonard
The Scottish Opera, Gertrude Opera for the Nagambie Lakes Opera Festival

Special Award for Outstanding Duo
Bradley Daley and Amber Wagner
Siegmund and Sieglinde
Die Walküre, Opera Australia

Commendation for Outstanding Production, Luisa Miller, Opera Australia

2016 OperaChaser Commendations, Australia
From 12 productions seen in Adelaide, Brisbane and Sydney.

Outstanding Production
Luisa Miller, Opera Australia, Sydney
http://www.heraldsun.com.au/entertainment/arts/opera-review-luisa-miller-opera-australia-arts-centre-melbourne/news-story/17a5713ec8a43b96f513d12359984b09 (review of Melbourne opening)

Outstanding Director
Gale Edwards
Cloudstreet, State Opera of South Australia

Outstanding Male in a Lead Role
Russell Harcourt
Nerone, Agrippina, Brisbane Baroque  in association with Göttingen International Opera Festival

Outstanding Female in a Lead Role
Rachelle Durkin
Title role, Armida, Pinchgut Opera, Sydney

Outstanding Male in a Supporting Role
Kanen Breen
Truffaldino, Love for Three Oranges, Opera Australia, Sydney

Outstanding Female in a Supporting Role
Desiree Frahn
Rose Pickles, Cloudstreet, State Opera of South Australia, Adelaide

Outstanding Conductor
Andrea Molino
The Barber of Seville, Opera Australia, Sydney

Outstanding Set Design
Michael Yeargan
The Barber of Seville, Opera Australia, Sydney

Outstanding Costume design
Tanya Noginova
Love for Three Oranges, Opera Australia, Sydney

Outstanding Lighting Design
David Finn
Cosi fan tutte, Opera Australia

Commendation for Outstanding Production, La Juive, Bayerische Staatsoper

2016 OperaChaser Commendations, International
From 51 productions seen in 16 cities: Beijing, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Chicago, Fort Worth, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Toronto, Berlin, Hamburg, London, Ljubljana, Madrid, Munich and Prague.

Outstanding Production
La Juive, Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich

Innovative Opera Company
Fort Worth Opera

Outstanding Director
Arnaud Bernard
Roméo et Juliette, Opera Hong Kong in collaboration with Le French May Arts Festival

Outstanding Male in a Lead Role
Alexander Tsymbalyuk
Boris Godunov, Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/27/arts/27iht-loomis27.html ^

Outstanding Female in a Lead Role
Sondra Radvanovsky
Elizabeth I, Roberto Devereux, The Metropolitan Opera, New York
http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/26/arts/music/roberto-devereux-at-the-met-and-a-sopranos-triple-crown.html?_r=0  ^

Outstanding Male in a Supporting Role
Matthew Rose
Ochs, Der Rosenkavalier, Lyric Opera of Chicago

Outstanding Female in a Supporting Role
Ambur Braid
Dalinda, Ariodante, Canadian Opera Company, Toronto

Outstanding Conductor
Jaroslav Kyzlink
Carmen, Slovenian National Opera and Ballet, Ljubljana

Outstanding Set Design
Giles Cadle
Les Huguenots, Deutsche Oper Berlin

Outstanding Costume Design
Outstanding Lighting Design
Bruno Poet
Akhnaten, English National Opera, London

Outstanding Chorus
LA Opera Chorus
Macbeth, LA Opera, Los Angeles

Once again, thank you to all!

^ links to reviews not penned by myself

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Opera highlights in 2016 and expected highlights in 2017 on the Melbourne opera scene

Highlights of the Melbourne opera scene in 2016

In my three decades of opera-going that I'm now calling OperaChasing and the piles of opera programs I'm not sure what to do with, 2016 will remain special: 95 opera productions in 21 cities across 4 continents. The memories of many may wilt as they hopefully nourish the heart and soul but others presumably will have everlasting immediacy.

Nagambie Lakes Opera Festival's Trouble in Tahiti
In Melbourne, I love seeing how the operatic pulse beats and I'm always wishing more people would taste what's on offer, from the smell-of-an-oily-rag budget productions to the polished bells and whistles of the hugely funded national opera company. One thing for certain is that the smell of an oily rag is often at least as overwhelmingly affecting and rewarding as any high-end work performed to the more toffee-nosed culture that sticks to opera's heals.

Melbourne staged no less than 24 opera productions in 2016. Adding Gertrude Opera's Nagambie Lakes Opera Festival, a little weekend outing for city dwellers to combine wine and opera, the number swells to 32. Ok, part of that diverse program included three "nano" operas around 15 minutes in length each, but how their succinct attack still penetrates. Apart from the bacchanalian-steered opening night dinner and gorgeously sung operatic arias, Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti directed by Greg Eldridge and The Scottish Opera, a new gripping, shortened and stylised meshing of Verdi's Macbeth in an 80-minute work directed and designed by Luke Leonard, still resonate.

Opera Australia's Götterdämmerung
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the return of Opera Australia's Ring Cycle directed by Neil Armfield surprised me how much more arresting it was than its 2013 premiere (possibly due to that wilted memory). Elements of the everyday, mixed with the symbolic and surreal accompanying detailed characterisation and the year's most extraordinary singing and music-making, came together in a work of astounding beauty. Thank the gods it wasn't staged earlier in the year. I was so emotionally pummelled that immersing in anything outside The Ring seemed completely mundane.

Of the four, I had to see Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung again, and not just because of the allure of the double-dotted diacritics. Let's hope the cycle returns to Melbourne in 2019 so that it can be ticked off many more bucket lists.

But take note Opera Australia. More double-dotted Wagnerian repertoire got a magnificent outing by independently funded Melbourne Opera with Tannhäuser. This was a huge achievement that saw the company take a bold risk while making opera look right at home in the iconic Regent Theatre. Wagner's recurring theme of redemption resonated with glorious singing, expert orchestral support and director Suzanne Chaundy and her creative team's compelling staging portraying the contrast between one world of societal strictures and another of sexual pleasures. Perhaps Melbourne does have the initiative and resources to call itself a Wagnerian city after all. Is there any dream this city can't dream without making it a reality?

Victorian Opera's Laughter and Tears
Victorian Opera's innovative arm muscled up once again under Artistic Director Richard Mills's tireless efforts in giving a fresh approach to the art. Directed by Emil Wolk, Laughter and Tears saw Mills's powerful reimagining of Leoncavallo's great tragic one-act opera, Pagliacci – the tears – come with a prologue made up of a pastiche of Baroque and Renaissance music imbued with comic abandon and contextual contrast – the laughter. Integrated circus arts handsomely illuminated the stage for one of the company's most compelling recent works that saw opera return to another splendid venue, the Palais Theatre. Certainly a work worthy of revival.

Later in the year, Virgil Thomson's nourishing music and Gertrude Stein's near-nonsensical libretto for Four Saints in Three Acts was brought to the stage in a heavenly 3-D experience from director Nancy Black and gleamingly sung by the Victorian Opera Youth Chorus Ensemble (VOYCE) alongside the young guns of Victorian Opera's professional development program. Let's pray that it'll be resurrected because those 3-D glasses need to be used again.

Finally, little Lyric Opera of Melbourne delivered an exquisite three-season adventure headed by the succulently staged, mojito-driven and rarely seen operatic version of Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana by Aussie composer Malcolm Williamson. The musical richness of the score – brilliantly sung by many of Melbourne's young artists – the witty libretto and the directorial flesh Suzanne Chaundy gave to this festering black comedy (performed to an audience not much larger than 150), reflects the knack Artistic Director Pat Miller has in unearthing varied and exciting works.

Bavarian State Opera's La Juive (The Jewess) 
Much further afield, controversial Catalan director Calixto Bieito's dark, thought-provoking interpretation of Fromental Halévy's rarely seen 1835 La Juive (The Jewess) at the Bavarian State Opera stood out for its subtlety and strength. Musically and vocally outstanding, it remains for me the year's most powerfully relevant work highlighting the oneness and differences in humanity, the instilled fear of the other as a threat, and of intolerances we harbour but can't see. Much food for modern thought.

For those interested in the many great contributions made to the art of opera in 2016, I'm running a one-hour Twitter night for The 2nd Annual OperaChaser Awards and Commendations via @OperaChaser at 5pm AEST on 27th December. I've given only a little away so come join in and have a drink to find out more to celebrate our artists with me.

Expected highlights of the Melbourne opera scene in 2017

If you think opera isn't your thing, maybe 2017 might change that. Bizet's ever-popular Carmen comes to town in a new production from Opera Australia so that could do the trick but I saw it in Sydney earlier this year and it's Cuban-set concoction needed a deal of attention I hope it gets by May. Two works at the top of my list are Opera Australia's King Roger – a 1924 work by Polish composer Karol Szymanowski and a co-production with London's Royal Opera House – and Melbourne Opera's second outing at the Regent Theatre for hours and hours of more Wagner with Lohengrin.

Rarely do we see Czech composer Leoš Janácek’s powerful works so Victorian Opera's Cunning Little Vixen, his poignant reflection on the cycle of life, shouldn't be missed either. Make sure you add Tom Waits and William S Burroughs's allegory of addiction, The Black Rider, to the list as well. It's a co-production with Malthouse Theatre starring Paul Capsis with Meow Meow and Kanen Breen.

Lyric Opera of Melbourne will no doubt enchant with a contemporary work by female composer Rachel Portman, The Little Prince. Based on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's delightful 1943 book, it premiered at Houston Grand Opera in 2003 with Teddy Tabu Rhodes in the role of the Pilot.

Finally, on the international front, for something quirky amongst so much impressive work that'll be impossible to see, there's a new comic opera based on that botched restoration of a fresco of Jesus likened to a hedgehog. Written by two Americans, librettist Andrew Flack and composer Paul Fowler, Behold the Man will premiere in a fully staged production in the town of Borja where everyone's laughing at how a town's misfortune turned with just a few well-intended brushstrokes. That I'd love to see.

Unified strength prevails in MSO's concert performance of Handel's Messiah: Herald Sun Review


FROM its modest 1742 premiere, Handel’s great oratorio and one of classical music’s best known works, Messiah has cast itself in Western music culture and, as the festive season barrels towards Christmas, it spikes to make its annual appearance.

The numbers involved in its performance vary and often swell to several hundred but there exists no definitive Messiah. If Saturday evening’s Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s historically informed performance achieved one thing, it was through the powerfully absorbing and reverently handled nature of the work under the guidance of conductor Paul Goodwin.

Sung from scriptural text compiled by Charles Jennens, Messiah is rich in Handel’s operatic signature and composed in three parts for four soloists and chorus — prophecy of Christ’s birth and nativity, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ and, finally, victory over death. On Saturday night, its beauty was illuminated by Goodwin’s astuteness in harnessing the vocal and musical forces and crafting them with appealing balance. What resulted was an interpretation, diction-clear across the board, which transcends religious and ecclesiastical pomp to deliver a performance buttressed with meditative poignancy and universality.

The 40-plus MSO musicians maintained superb support for the excellence and fastidiousness on display from the little over 100 orderly and time-perfect MSO Chorus, impressively prepared by chorus master Warren Trevelyan-Jones. A unified strength prevailed. Soloists Christopher Richardson, Charles Daniels, Luciana Mancini and Emma Matthews were splendid in voice and apart from Daniels’s persistence in distractingly turning pages of his score with head lowered, all were deferentially bound to the whole.

With a near-packed Hamer Hall standing for the great “Hallelujah” chorus, a fine magisterial elegance resonated without any bombastic attitude, the voices suspended divinely over a bed of music on which even the clarion trumpet mannerly nudged itself. The delicacy and finely threaded chorus work in “For unto us a child is born” was particularly resplendent for its smooth graduation and uplift as was “He trusted in God” with its thoughtful pacing and sublime bleeding vocal parts.

Effervescent soprano Emma Matthews’s adeptly controlled phrasing, crystal clarity and accomplished ornamentation came with spirited delivery. Later, an enchanting, lulling evenness was brought to “I know that my Redeemer liveth”.

Noticeably engaged with the awe of the work and her audience, mezzo-soprano Luciana Mancini’s performance came with heartfelt conviction to the text. Plush-voiced and effortlessly strident in the lower range, Mancini’s fiercely sung “He was despised” was so compelling that pleas for humanitarianism and moral deliverance rang loud and clear.

Smooth, dark and resonant bass Christopher Richardson was outstanding throughout, his final “The trumpet shall sound” noble and assured with a comforting vocal flexibility that even his colleagues clearly delighted in.

And despite looking clearly on his own path, character-rich tenor Charles Daniels transformed with gusto, opening Part the First with a strikingly multifaceted “Comfort ye” and “”Ev’ry valley”, ranging from silken to silty toned and bringing much liveliness to his part.

When the untiring expertise of the MSO Chorus reached to a mighty “Worthy is the Lamb” and the final tidal splendour of “Amen”, they further elevated the evening in a concert already full of polish and glorious in issuing its voice of hope. Let the festive season resonate.


Arts Centre Melbourne until 11th December

Rating: four stars

Simone Young conducts Wagner and Bruckner: Herald Sun Review


FOR last week’s Melbourne Symphony Orchestra concert, the welcome return of guest conductor Simone Young came with an equally thrilling and demanding evening of Bruckner with Symphony No.9 in D minor (1894) and excerpts from Act 2 of Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal (1882).

A smart last-minute program change swapped the order, placing Bruckner’s symphony ahead of Wagner’s Parsifal excerpts, both expansive works composed at the end of their creator’s lives.

Bruckner’s restless three-movement No.9, unfinished but still one-hour in length, ends in a soaring escape of shining brass above gently integrated string and woodwind. It brings tranquillity and passage to someplace distant, making a fitting introduction to the work of a composer he esteemed, to the convoluted medieval tale of grail hunters.

For that, two outstanding singers, American mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung as Kundry and Australian tenor Stuart Skelton as Parsifal, brought a combined dramatic trajectory that took the evening to a fulfilling close.

In Bruckner’s Symphony No.9, Simone Young’s incisive, vibrant and meticulous conducting whipped up a vivid landscape of the work’s ever-changing mood. Within the first minutes of the first, misterioso movement, the quietly solemn and explosively grandiose are spliced side by side with ease, setting the tone for what characterises much of the work. Occasionally marked by pauses of silence, themes are so quick to change that there’s little time to hold onto their threads and comes across rather like a composer’s resume of orchestral genius.

The sharp angularity of the second, scherzo movement is thematically tighter. Within it, perfectly unified plinking strings are answered by exciting, stomping brass and percussion. The theme returns in an increasingly coalescing picture. Here, the force of around 100 MSO musicians struck gold.

The much-grounded first two movements give way to a greater sense of expansive warmth in the final adagio where rich thematic medleys return. With lots to absorb, an ending seems nigh as a siren-like sound is emitted followed by a thunderous crash in which confident brass playing returned after a momentary hiatus. Bruckner then takes that characteristic devious pause and expels the air tenderly from the orchestra’s bellows.

After interval, imposing figures DeYoung and Skelton took the stage before Wagner’s Vorspiel, or Prelude, to Act 2 of Parsifal, setting the scene of temptation and redemption between Kundry, wild woman and seductress, and Parsifal, the “innocent fool” who, in learning compassion and resisting Kundry becomes saviour of the Grail Knights.

Rewardingly, fervour in character immersion accompanied mountainous vocal strength. Printed text in the program to follow their dialogue also gave assistance.

The sumptuous, broad-based foundation of DeYoung’s richly textured soprano became fast evident and impressive. Initially showing rock-solid composure and evoking mystery to her character as Kundry woos Parsifal with the story of his unknown mother, DeYoung transforms with untamed ferocity in a performance of iron-hot emotion as her charms are resisted. Big in range with superb phrasing and firm and powerful at the top, DeYoung easily demonstrated her abilities that see her sing arduous soprano roles on the world stage.

Twice this year I saw Skelton rise to great heights to give Wagner’s Tristan compelling form in London and New York. When Wagner comes with hours of gruelling on-stage demands, 45 minutes might seem trifling but Skelton made every one of them edifying. Skelton’s Parsifal opened with poignant geniality, vocally warm and effortlessly resonant. From there, the depth of complexity escalated and an emotively charged Skelton sung with as much defiance and authority that Parsifal expresses, each phrase exciting and considered. Pairing splendidly with DeYoung, the two forged a meteoric combination for the concert’s second part.

Throughout Parsifal’s excerpts, Simone Young led a superbly primed MSO, giving breath to the score’s descriptive and organic beauty and attentive support to the duo. I imagine no one was disappointed by the program change.


Hamer Hall, Arts Centre until December 3

Rating: four stars